Recently I read a book on the 80/20 Principle. This book started me to ponder a number of things from my business to my personal life. When I thought about photography I began to think about how many posts on social media and in conversations with newer about fixing exposure, white balance, and composition of photographs. I am in many social media groups centered around photography and it just isn’t those starting out, it often includes those who have been photographers for a long time. In fact, I posed a question in a few of these social media sites asking “What do you spend most of your time doing in post processing? What would you say if I could show you how to cut your post processing time and increase quality and the number of “keepers” in your photography?” All the responses believed it has something to do with post processing. What if I were to tell you there is a way to cut the amount of time you spend doing “basic” adjusts to your photos, if not eliminating the need to adjust exposure, white balance or composition, and you can do it for almost no, or little cost? Interested?
The best way to correct exposure is to get the exposure correct when you take the photograph. You have probably heard the comment, “get it right in the camera”. Learn how to meter the light. Learn how and when to change or add supplemental light. This all sounds complex and expensive but it doesn’t have to expensive or difficult.
I have written and talked about metering the light many times in the past. There are two basic types of meter readings. Incident and reflected light.
- Incident light is the light falling on your subject. To measure this type you will need a dedicated light meter.
- Reflected light is the light being reflected by your subject. You can measure this with either the meter built into your camera or with a dedicated light meter.
To learn to meter better it is important to know that modern camera has a variety of metering modes. There are three basic metering modes; matrix, center-weighted, and spot. One isn’t better than the other since each mode has circumstances where it may be better or worse than the other two. Often, this is covered in the owner’s manual of your camera. Familiarize yourself with the metering modes and when to use which mode.
But I shoot RAW so I have more latitude in adjusting exposure in post processing. I know, I know. I have heard this statement thousands of times. Yes, you can have more latitude in adjusting a RAW file but what would you rather be doing, taking photographs or adjusting exposure in post processing?
If after you meter, you realize you don’t have enough light, a simple solution is a reflector. Use it to reflect that natural light upon your subject. This will help to separate your subject from the background. I keep pieces of large white cardboard that I get when I order prints. I use these to show students how using a mere piece of white cardboard can become an awesome reflector even though I prefer the commercially available reflectors.
The photograph above is similar to the reflectors I use. They are often called a 5 in 1 because you have 5 options, silver, white, black, gold, and a diffuser. One that I use a lot is a 42″ (42 inch) reflector you can find for around $20 up.
But I don’t have anyone to help me. First, let me say it is always a good idea to have an assistant. It could be a spouse or significant other, a parent, friend, etc. The assistant can help with a variety of things freeing you up to be more creative and ready for the moment. If you are working alone you can get or build an inexpensive light stand. I believe my first light stand was less than $20. While it may not be sturdy enough for a studio strobe or softbox all we need at this point is it to hold our reflector, be it the white cardboard or a 5 in 1. For a long time, I used an inexpensive light stand and some spring clamps you can buy at Wal-Mart or any home improvement store. Even today, when I have portable studio lights and off camera flash I always carry a couple of 5 in 1 reflectors and use them a great deal.
Once you learn how to use the reflector and your meter you can meter for the background and use the reflector to light your subject. Voila! You now may have eliminated your need to adjust exposure.
Yes, there will be those times that you may need to fine tune exposure but those should be only under some difficult conditions or special circumstances.
Another great tool for getting better exposures is the use of an “old-time” tool. The 18% gray card.
You can buy a set of cards like those above for less than $10. We will talk about the white and black cards later.
So far, we have an awesome and powerful set of tools for around $50 or less, and if time is money then we have saved countless hours in post processing time and as a result of our time savings our ROI, return on investment is significant.
One thing I will mention is we want to use off camera flash, you won’t be able to get a meter reading from your camera. The use of “off camera flash” will need some more specialized tools which I will discuss at a later time.
So many times I see people who crop an image to achieve the composition they wanted for a particular photograph. While it is sometimes necessary many, if not most, times it is just that the photographer didn’t pay attention to composition when taking the photograph. I use a method that is often called “border patrol”. While I am looking through the viewfinder I scan the edges of the frame and look for distractions. With practice, this happens very quickly.
When setting up the shot, pay attention to mergers such as trees, branches, or other objects that seem to be “growing out of heads” or other parts of our subject. Pay attention to distracting elements in the background or other parts of our frame. Can the distracting element be removed by moving our position or subject? Can the distraction be eliminated by moving it? Pay attention to the positioning of your subject in the frame, are they too close to the edge? Plan ahead and think of getting the photograph printed and framed. You may want to leave some space for framing and matting, especially with portraits or fine art photographs.
White balance oh the mystery of white balance. As the passage from the poem above goes, “Red is gray and yellow is white but we decide which is right and which is an illusion” or do we leave it up to our camera to decide?
Auto white balance is and awesome thing, in fact, the multiple choices we can set, in camera to decide white balance is awesome. In film days, I had a choice of daylight balance or tungsten balance. Anything else required color correction filters. Ever shoot a photo with daylight film inside with fluorescent lighting? Let’s just say bizarre colors.
Often the problem with auto white balance is that it can change from frame to frame without any real difference in the light, camera position, or subject position. The first and most simple way, choose the proper white balance. If you are shooting in sunlight, use daylight, incandescent lighting uses the incandescent setting, and so forth.
In mixed lighting, it often becomes necessary to use a custom white balance. Remember the set of three cards from the section on exposure? We can use the white card to set a custom white balance. In essence, we are telling the camera what is white. Another option, have your subject hold the set of three cards, the white, black, and gray. We can take a reference photograph and then in post we can set the white balance using the reference photograph and batch the others under the same lighting. We will now have consistent white balance across our photographs and have saved ourselves time from adjusting individually.
How to learn these things
These topics often appear complex, especially to new photographers. I am not a huge fan of the “University of YouTube”. There is some good content out there and there is a lot of bad content, but my biggest issue with learning via YouTube is there is no student/teacher interaction. If you don’t understand something, who do you ask? You can ask in social media forums but it is likely that you will get a range of answers, some right, many wrongs. This will add to the confusion. You can read books but again there is no direct student/teacher interaction.
My suggestion has been and will probably always be to take a class or lessons from a school or instructor on these topics, these can be paid for lessons or if you can find a willing mentor/instructor who is both knowledgeable and willing to work with you.